From massive oil spills to depleted uranium, a century of wars at an industrial scale has had a particularly adverse effect on our environment

Sweta Choudhury


Anyone who has watched David Attenborough’s latest documentary on climate change will have realised that we are at the absolute tipping point of the climate emergency. It gives us a glimpse of where we might be headed; almost inevitable yet unfathomable climate breakdown.

There was a time when nuclear warfare was deemed the single most urgent threat to humanity. But decades of advanced warfare and the massive growth of the military-security-industrial complex have left an impact on our environment so profound that climate change is now the single biggest threat to the survival of our planet and its beings.

The climate crisis we face today is a consequence of our collective failure to oppose endless industrial consumption and warfare in a planet where resources are finite, yet the pursuit of power endless. The magnitude of the environmental destruction wrought by the World Wars and thereafter by the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave the world the first glimpse of the extent of damage that industrial warfare could bring. Both wars and the subsequent nuclear blasts caused environmental damage at a scale like never seen before. Yet, 100 years on, the world has seen more wars than in any other point in history.

From massive oil spills to depleted uranium, a century of wars at an industrial scale has had a particularly adverse effect on the environment and climate. The impact of the military-industrial complex on environmental depletion is colossal, to say the least. Military activity, which includes direct conflict, nuclear weapons, military training, and military produced contaminants has an overwhelmingly negative impact on the environment and is one of the main reasons behind biodiversity decline and ecosystem degradation. Yet, the world’s military establishments have been systematically exempt from most environmental and political scrutiny because of the corrupt and interlocked web of corporations and governments that profits from and promotes militarism.

A recent report published by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) on military expenditure and climate change reveals that the British government spends a staggering £46.6 billion on military expenditure in comparison to a derisory £17 billion on preventing climate change.[1] Another CAAT report exposes the fact that much of the funds needed to tackle the climate emergency are diverted to and used by the military.[2]

It’s no secret that the countries with the largest industrialised militaries have the largest carbon footprints, making them the biggest polluters on the planet. Another recent report from Brown University’s Watson Institute concludes that the US military emissions since the beginning of the ‘War of Terror’ is 1.2 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gases.[3] Other heavily militarised nations like China, India, Russia and North Korea are also responsible for the unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute massively to the climate crisis.

The real cost of industrial warfare can be witnessed in countries where the ‘War on Terror’ has been continuing. Starting from Afghanistan to the recent war in Syria, the crippling effects of industrial warfare can be seen in every country the US and the UK have invaded where much of the biodiversity has been destroyed.

The 19-year long US-led war in Afghanistan has left a huge military footprint in the nation. The US military activities not only emitted millions of tons of carbon dioxide and toxic pollutants but also destroyed the biodiversity of the country through large-scale deforestation.

In Iraq, the environmental havoc inflicted by the ‘War on Terror’ is even worse. In addition to heavy C02 emissions and burn pits releasing lethal chemicals like those in Afghanistan, the use of depleted uranium munitions led to severe toxic build up in the environment. The outcome was elevated rates of cancer and other terminal diseases as well as crippling congenital disabilities – an unfortunate and unfair consequence to be borne by innocent Iraqis. The same toxic munitions were used in the US-UK led bombing campaign in Syria.

The adverse effects of war are not just evident in war-torn countries. As the collateral damage of the military-industrial complex reach the north and south poles, the melting of the Arctic is not only creating an ecological emergency but also becoming a flashpoint for a new Cold War.

The region’s rich natural resources like oil, natural gas and fish are being eyed by both polar and non-polar countries, which is creating a potential battlefield between military superpowers. The melting of the ice in this natural resource rich region is making trade routes more navigable and as a result garnering Western economic interests. The US and Russia have already got plans underway to heavily remilitarise the Arctic while China is planning to create a ‘Polar Silk Route’ by developing shipping lanes, making the region even more vulnerable to destruction.

Furthermore, rising sea levels, floods, famines, diminishing access to fresh water and the other climate-related emergencies prompt mass migration and creates even more resource scarcity. This has already been a large contributory factor to the outbreak of civil wars in parts of Asia, Africa and South America.

To be clear-cut, the liabilities of the military-industrial complex have fallen mostly on developing, or underdeveloped countries as the first stages of the climate crisis have mainly impacted countries like Bangladesh, Haiti, the Philippines, Madagascar, Fiji and Australia. Sooner or later, the emergency will hit every shore on the planet.

Futile wars have significantly contributed to the destruction of the planet and those who live in it. Before we reach an irreversible climate catastrophe, we must do everything we can to change our ways. Dismantling the military-industrial complex is perhaps the first and the most crucial step to combat climate change effectively. We may have somehow reeled out of the nuclear catastrophe in the past, but it’s evident that we are now heading towards a greater one that may be irreversible if we don’t act on time.

[1] https://caat.org.uk/news/new-caat-report-on-military-expenditure-and-climate-change/

[2] https://caat.org.uk/news/2020-03-02-2/

[3] https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/papers/ClimateChangeandCostofWar

05 Nov 2020

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